By Marty Callaghan

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the VA’s “unchecked incompetence” is causing many of its mental-health patients to “agonize or perish.” A ruling the Legion says is one-sided.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs “unchecked incompetence” is causing many of its mental-health patients to “agonize or perish.” However, The American Legion says the ruling is one-sided and overlooks the fact that the VA has excellent programs in place for the treatment of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and suicide prevention among veterans.

“Balanced criticism of VA’s performance is justified, but the 9th Circuit Court seems to have gone out of its way to portray VA as an incompetent organization. That simply isn’t the case,” said Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion in Washington.

On May 10, the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco ordered the VA to come up with a new mental health-care plan, calling its current system seriously flawed.

The court’s decision overturns a 2008 judgment by U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti, who said the charges were misdirected because the authority of courts to review VA benefits decisions is too narrow.

“The American Legion evaluates VA medical facilities every year and identifies many problems that need to be fixed,” Gaytan said. “But, in general, we find that our country’s largest health-care system is doing a commendable job.”

Since Eric Shinseki became its secretary, the VA has hired an additional 3,500 mental-health professionals, bringing its total to nearly 21,000. Currently, the VA is evaluating 95 percent of its veterans with PTS and other mental-health issues within 14 days. The VA’s budget for mental-health programs has risen to more than $5.2 billion and President Obama is requesting $6.2 billion for fiscal 2012.

“If people go by what Judge (Stephen) Reinhardt wrote in his opinion, they’re getting a skewed version of what the VA does and how well they do it,” Gaytan said.

Reinhardt wrote the court’s opinion for a three-judge panel that determined – by a 2-1 vote – the VA’s mental health-care is violating the rights of veterans because of unnecessary and lengthy delays that put many of them at risk.

“There comes a time when the political branches have so completely and chronically failed to respect the people’s constitutional rights that the courts must be willing to enforce them,” Reinhardt wrote. While he acknowledged that government agencies are better suited than courts to care for veterans, “that is only so if those governmental institutions are willing to do their job.”

The VA now has a suicide prevention coordinator or team in place at each of its 153 medical centers in the country. The department estimates it has saved more than 15,000 lives through its Veterans Crisis Hotline, with another 55,000 callers referred to VA suicide prevention coordinators.

For the first time in its history, the VA logged more than one million decisions in 2010 on disability claims. A new paperless process for disability claims, called the Veterans Benefits Management System, promises to become a key factor in reducing VA’s claims backlog when it becomes operational in 2012.

“Do veterans sometimes experience unreasonable delays before they receive proper treatment?” Gaytan asked. “Of course, but that doesn’t mean an entire department should be condemned.”

Gaytan said The American Legion works diligently “to ensure that the VA is indeed capable of meeting its mission to provide quality health care in a timely manner for those who have earned it through their honorable service, and we will work with VA to ensure the delivery of mental health care continues to improve.”